When we’re overweight, we know implicitly that it’s unhealthy and we also know that the right diet and exercise should help to shift those extra pounds. But what about an unhealthy brain? What can we do for our brain when it’s out of shape?
Well - there are some simple science-backed changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle which have immense power to change the way your brains operate. So today I am going to walk through the five steps you need to take to nurture and maintain a healthier brain.
Diet and lifestyle change the brain
Diet and lifestyle (healthy and unhealthy) change the way your brain operates which in turn alter the way you behave and feel. And how you feel and behave guides the diet and lifestyle choices you make. So when you feel unhealthy you’re more likely to reach for wine rather than water. And when you feel happy and healthy you more likely to reach for an apple instead of cake.
Brain health science has revealed over the last few decades the five key lifestyle habits that will help you develop and maintain a healthy brain.
1. Eat a mediterranean-style diet high in vegetables and fruits, but low in sugar, salt and processed foods
Of all the different parts of your body, your brain is the most vulnerable to the damaging effects of a poor diet. The brain cries out for the fuel provided by food like no other part of your body. It is the most metabolically active part of your body, demanding over 20% of your body’s total energy haul.
Meal after meal, the foods you eat are broken down into nutrients, absorbed into the blood stream and drawn up into your brain. Once they arrive, their job is to replenish depleted storage, trigger the proper cellular reactions, and finally to become themselves part of the fabric of your brain.
Research has shown that a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in plant-based complex carbohydrates and antioxidants, like fruits and vegetables, polyunsaturated fatty acids in fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, trout and anchovies) and the monounsaturated fat from nuts such as almonds, cashews and pistachio nuts is perfectly suited to brain health. People who follow a Mediterranean-style diet have younger looking brains, but unlike people who eat a western diet high in processed foods, salt and sugar, show no early brain signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and are much less likely to ever go onto experience mental decline and dementia.
Looking after the microbes that live in your gut is also important for your brain health. You gut is home to trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that make up your microbiome, an environment which has a big influence over your brain. Your gut bacteria help you to digest food, manage your metabolism, and produce essential vitamins for your brain health, including keeping your brain young and preventing mental decline later in life.
To keep your gut healthy, you should try and eat a varied diet, fibre rich foods like beans, peas, oats, bananas and legumes.You also want to consume pre-biotics, non-digestible carbohydrates, like garlic, onions and artichokes, because these act as a fertiliser for growing good bacteria in your gut. Probiotics are also really important for your gut health. These “live” bacteria help to replenish your microbiome’s good bacteria. Probiotics can be obtained from eating fermented and cultured foods, including dairy, like full fat yogurt and kefir, and fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut and kimchi.
By far and above the brain-healthiest drink is water. Drinking 2 litres of water a day is research-proven to maintain the proper percentage of bodily fluids in your body and brain and improve your reactions and mental ability by up to 30 percent.
Reducing your caloric intake can boost your mental capacity, reduce brain ageing, and promote longevity. There’s a large body of good science that has shown that stressing your brain by restricting calories — within reason! — pushes brain cells to grow stronger and more resilient, protecting your against dementia.
2. Lead an active lifestyle that incorporates regular movement into your daily routine
Exercise is a safeguard against future dementia, but also invigorate your abilities to think, reason and remember in the here and now.
We now know that different types of physical exercise can slow down brain shrinkage, improve mental function, and even prevent the onset of mental decline later in life. Recent breakthroughs have shown that even people carrying the genetic mutations that cause Alzheimer’s disease can lower their risk of ever developing the disease by engaging in the right physical activity.
Aerobic exercise in particular - the kind that makes your heart beat faster - enhances blood flow and circulation, pumping more oxygen and nutrients to the brain. It is this enhanced blood flow that makes you feel clearheaded after exercise, while working its magic behind the scenes, stopping your arteries getting clogged up.
At the same time, aerobic exercise stimulates the release of brain chemicals that promote the growth of new brain cells and connections, and also act as a first aid kit for any brain cells in need of repair. Thanks to aerobic exercise, your brain gets a constant supply of new brain cells, increased plasticity and connectivity, improving your ability to make and retain memories.
Resistance training (the use of weights to build and preserve muscle) has also been shown to positively affect brain function. You might think that “lifting weights” is just for people trying to achieve the perfect physique, but actually this form of exercise also has huge benefits for the brain.
The positive effects of resistance training includes: improved connectivity between brains cells, increased levels of the brain chemicals that promote the growth of brain cells, improved short-term and long-term memory, better blood flow to the brain long after you’ve stopped exercising and decreased inflammation after long periods of high or low intensity resistance training.
The benefits of any kind of exercise for your brain massively increase if it involves and challenges multiple brain systems in complex, multimodal ways, thereby creating stronger connections and more resilience. Everything we know about the brain suggest that more sports with complex movements - like tennis, gymnastics or yoga - provide more protection against mental decline. The ultimate goal is to find something that keeps you active, challenges your brain, and makes you happier in the process.
3. Manage "uncontrolled stress" through meditation and mindfulness, time spent in nature and the support of strong communities.
The demands placed on you in modern world create a perfect storm for stress and brain shrinkage. When these demands persist, you are in a constant state of stress. Not all stress is bad. We need a bit of stress in our life to drive us forward. But unrelenting, “uncontrolled stress” puts our body in autonomic overdrive and subsequently increases a stress hormone called cortisol.
When cortisol is elevated for long periods it shrinks the hippocampus - the brain area responsible for your memory and learning - increasing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Uncontrolled stress can trigger a cascade of chemical reactions that disrupts cells and blood vessels and causes inflammation of the brain.
When we experience significant stress, we’re less able to process our emotions or access coping strategies. As a result, we quickly become exhausted, overwhelmed, and unable to sustain healthy behaviours: our sleep is disturbed, we tend to crave sugary, fatty food and fatigue keeps us from exercising.
So what can you do to manage and minimise the brain-damaging effects of stress? Meditating is a great way to ease the frantic state of mind many of us find ourselves in. Taking a “brain break”—relearning how to slow down and look inward by using meditation is a really good practice for forcing yourself to slow down and take time for you.
There are a growing collection of research studies demonstrating the benefits of meditation for brain function and stress reduction. Some of the most important work has shown that meditation can reduce brain shrinkage and change the configuration of brain pathways. With regular practice, you can cultivate a more resilient brain that: contributes a greater sense of well-being, helps to maintain your brain health, alleviates uncontrolled mental stress, and promotes healthy sustained focus.
4. Get regular and restorative sleep with good management of medication, foods and lifestyles that adversely affect your sleep
We now really understand the brain benefits of sleep like we never have before. Sleep sets the destiny of your brain, affects how much you eat, how fast your metabolism is, whether you become overweight or thin and whether you can fight off infection.
If you are consistently missing out on your 7 to 8 hours every night, you are increasing your risk of dementia. Sleep deprivation is shrinking the memory centres in your brain, accumulating the toxic proteins that are killing brain cells and blocking your ability to lay down new memories, all of which are significantly increasing your chances of chronic memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.
Deep sleep, or slow wave sleep, rewires your brain while you sleep. The new information you’ve learned that day is integrated with old, stored memories, rewiring the connections in your brain. Chronic sleep deprivation interferes with this process, impairing your learning and ability form and lay down long-term memories.
When you’re in deep, slow-wave sleep, the brain’s deep cleaning team go to work cleaning up all the metabolic rubbish and debris left by brain processing during the day. Amongst other metabolic waste, the two toxic proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease are washed away by this overnight deep clean, stopping them accumulating and killing your brain cells.
So the more sleep you lose each night the more these brain cell-killing proteins are building up, night after night, year after year. So not getting enough sleep across your adult life will significantly increase your chances of memory loss and developing Alzheimer’s disease.
So what can you do to ensure you consistently get a good night’s sleep? The most important thing you can do to sleep better is to tune your circadian rhythm - the biological clock inside your brain - to a regular sleep schedule.
Try and maintain a regular sleep routine, go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on the weekends. If you go to bed and wake up at consistently at the same, light enters your eyes and activates your circadian rhythm in a consistent fashion and your brain then knows what to do and when to do it, helping you get consistently good quality sleep.
At the start of the day, try and get out into natural daylight. Natural light keeps your circadian rhythm on a healthy, regular sleep-wake cycle. So try and let in the light first thing in the morning and get out of your home or workplace for a sun break during the day.
As part of a nightly wind-down routine, turn down the lights, avoid looking at your computer, smartphone, or TV screen in the last hour before bed, and keep phones and other digital devices out of the bedroom. The blue light on screens turns off melatonin, which is the hormone the brain produces to make you feel drowsy and initiate sleep
You should also try and keep the temperature cool in your bedroom, about 65 deg F (18 deg F). Your core temperature needs to drop by 2-3 degrees to intiate sleep.
5. Do complex activities that challenge your brains’ diverse capacities and have meaningful social interactions in your life.
Your brain is unique. During your childhood, your brain developed by growing billions of brain cells, connecting them up to each other through trillions of pathways, refining this network as you grew, leaving you with the brain structure you’ll have for the rest of your life. This is what we call your “brain reserve” - the scaffolding that remains inside your head after brain development is complete.
“Cognitive reserve”, on the other hand, is the extra connectivity and capacity you can add in to your brain as you develop throughout life. This capacity is determined by how much you challenge your brain, how much information you take in, all the trauma, risk, adventure, joy and knowledge you have experienced over your lifetime.
Cognitive reserve is essentially the integrity of the brain, and is the result of how you live your life. Brain reserve is determined early on, but cognitive reserve is within your control and can expanded, even late in life.
Why this matters for your brain health is because of this mind-blowing fact: all people in midlife have at least some of the brain disease associated with Alzheimer’s - brain shrinkage or beta amyloid - but only some of those people will go onto to experience mental decline and dementia.
Why is this? Because cognitive reserve affords the brain tremendous protection in the form of extra, redundant brain pathways to access the same information. There are tens of thousand different brain connections between brains cells which allow you to access the same memory, fact or idea via many different bridges and pathways. You need these extra redundant structures so you can cope with the disease of normal ageing, say when one bridge to a childhood memory is destroyed by a trauma, due to diet high in saturated fat or blocked by a toxic amyloid protein.
If your brain has sufficient reserve, sufficient extra capacity, you can endure all this disease and still access the memory because its connected thousands of different ways.
So how do you build cognitive reserve?
By far the best way to build cognitive reserve is to engage new, complex personalised activities that directly strengthen the bridges and pathways between different parts of your brain that govern different functions.
Each specified brain region governs a specific type of thinking. Each network network processes information, gives it a name and meaning, and then integrates into existing memories. Some of the most important functions controlled by specialised brain regions and networks are: attention and concentration, emotions and emotional processing, problem solving and planning, language processing, motor speed and coordination, verbal learning and memory and visual learning and memory.
Music is a perfect example of a complex activity the engages different parts of your brain. Playing the piano requires your brain to coordinates its efforts across many modalities: motor skills (pressing the right keys), visuospatial skills (moving your body and reading music), attention (to the timing of the music), mood (the way in which you respond to the music), executive function (following multiple steps in a complex sequence and language (how to transform notes on a page into sound).
Another kind of complex cognition is social interaction. Human beings are designed for social interaction. All evidence suggest that isolation is bad for human health. Loneliness can be a killer: the mortality rate in recently bereaved people is much higher because of loneliness and reduced social interaction. Studies have shown that loneliness is so damaging to your health that it’s equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Social engagement and interaction are associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Research has shown that people who are lonely have double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. People who are married or have extensive social networks are at reduced risk of mental decline. How social you are turns out to be one of the reliable determinants of your brain health.
Complex social activities, those that require you to be truly engaged and participatory, are most protective for your brain. These activities are purpose driven and involve active conversation, complete attention and often complex cognitive behaviour as well. They define who you are. They might take time and effort your part, but the rewards are massive for your brain health.
Social behaviour, especially complex social behaviour, works on many levels to increase cognitive reserve. Social interactions requires complex communication, skills that involve different brain functions: face recognition, memory, focus, attention, auditory skills, and language skills. It generates emotions that are important for motivation and finding meaning in your life.
Multi domain activities provide the best way of building significant cognitive reserve and protect the brain again mental decline.
You really can live your life to the advantage of your brain by how you EAT, MOVE, manage STRESS, SLEEP and CHALLENGE your brain.
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